by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder
The museum at the Carter Center in Atlanta typically echoes with the oohs and ahhs of tourists and the banter of field tripping schoolchildren, but all was silent Monday night as hundreds of well-wishers walked through the colorful displays to honor a flower-draped casket.
Rosalynn Carter, former first lady of Georgia and the United States, is set to make her final journey to her Plains, Georgia home Wednesday after fans across the state and country say farewell.
Carter, 96, died at her home Nov. 19 a few days after her family announced she had entered hospice. Her husband of 77 years, former President Jimmy Carter called her his “equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” and she was widely admired for her decades of advocacy, especially her work on behalf of people with mental illnesses and their caregivers.
Mental health advocate Aisha Bryant of Midtown Atlanta said she had the opportunity to meet Carter at Emory University in 2017 through her work with people with autism. She said the former first lady’s humility and kindness stuck with her.
“I just remember her being so humble towards me and just everything that she’s done in life, I didn’t expect that she’s just so happy, so calm, the demeanor about herself,” she said.
Many people in the crowd had personal stories of encounters with Rosalynn Carter. When she crossed your path, she always made you feel special, said Shellie Stuart, who came to the Carter Center Monday from Lincoln City, Oregon – about 2,700 miles away.
Stuart met the Carters through her work with Friendship Force International, a nonprofit promoting cultural exchange around the world and accompanied them on travels, including a 2002 diplomatic mission to Cuba.
“I was always amazed at how Rosalynn Carter had time for everybody,” she said. “Everybody mattered. Nobody was made to feel less important than anybody else. She was a huge inspiration to me and my friends. We felt that it was important to come here from Oregon, just to pay our respects and be part of this.”
John Lang, who made the 10-hour trip from Columbus, Ohio looked back fondly on the seven or eight Habitat for Humanity projects he accompanied the Carters on in the U.S. and in foreign lands that include India, Haiti and Thailand. He said he’ll never forget Rosalynn Carter’s beautiful smile, but she was far more than just a pretty face at the president’s side.
“She was out there working day in and day out,” he said. “I saw her in 90 degree weather, sweating with all the rest of us. And I think that’s one of the things a lot of people don’t realize, that Mrs. Carter and President Carter actually did the work.”
Lang said the former first couple were just as loving and affectionate as they are often described.
“They really were always holding hands, just on little short jaunts or going to get something to eat, you know, they would be holding hands, and I thought that was a true recognition of a marriage and that commitment to the other person,” he said.
Melissa Danielson of Forsyth said she also worked with Rosalynn Carter as her art registrar in the 1990s. When dignitaries sent the Carters gifts and awards, Danielson would catalog them before Rosalynn Carter would decide where to put them in the Carter Center.
“It was a pleasure working for them,” she said. “They were such compassionate people, very humble. She was such a wonderful lady to work for. She’s very down to earth and caring so much about people. My heart goes out to her family right now. I mean, she was a grandmother, great-grandmother, those are the people that I feel for deeply right now.”
Carter’s family members are set to say their goodbyes in a series of private services leading up to her funeral on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, invited guests will pay tribute at Glenn Memorial Church at Emory University. According to the Carter Center, every living former first lady is expected to attend – Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – as is current first lady Jill Biden, who is expected to arrive in Atlanta Tuesday with President Joe Biden.
Other notable guests expected to attend include former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and “multiple members of Congress and Georgia elected officials,” according to the Carter Center.
On Wednesday, Carter’s motorcade is scheduled to travel the 160 miles south to Plains for a private service at Maranatha Baptist Church, where the Carters worshiped, volunteered and taught for decades.
Members of the public are invited to line the motorcade route down Bond Street and along Ga. 280 in downtown Plains.